The Sexual Prosperity Gospel, Part 1: The Cautionary Tale of Joshua Harris

A generation of youth and their ministers bought into the ideals of the “Gospel” of Sexual Abstinence. The hero of that movement has now turned in a completely different direction.

In this age of social media rage and gut-wrenching division, I am thankful for one thing. Because of all the upheaval, I am learning about things that I never knew and certainly never understood.

I now understand the term “Sexual Prosperity Gospel.”

Regrettably, I learned this term due to the unfortunate circumstances of Joshua Harris, the anointed “king” of the abstinence movement in the 1990s. Harris wrote a book called I Kissed Dating Goodbye. This became the key volume to advocate courtship over dating as the ideal method to finding a spouse and creating a lifelong picture-perfecting Christian marriage.

Now, Harris and his wife of 21 years announced their pending divorce, and he has declared that he is no longer a Christian. This makes me incredibly sad for this couple and their family. As the unofficial “World’s Worst Pastor,” I am fully aware of the challenges and pitfalls that the world of ministry can dump on a pastor and her/his family.

At the same time, this massive shift creates a cautionary tale about anointing a person or concept as the absolute authority on what life in Christ is. It is a warning about the dangers of seeking or following carefully crafted formulas in search of a perfect ideal for discipleship in Christ.

First off, what is the “Sexual Prosperity Gospel?”

This term is coined in a retrospective look at the purity culture that has dominated youth ministries across the nation since the early 90s. I offer an oversimplified summary: If you commit to abstinence before marriage and resist the cultural temptations of casual sex, then you are a true follower of Christ and the Lord will bless you with a successful marriage.

The Prosperity Gospel promises the blessings of health and wealth and happiness if you are a good and Godly Christian. The Sexual Prosperity Gospel promises the blessings of a fabulous honeymoon and marriage and family if you follow all the tenants of purity culture, including complete abstinence from sex before marriage.

Second, we need to look briefly at a problem that permeates Christianity and evangelical culture as well as postmodern American culture. We have a dangerous tendency to become star-struck with anyone that says what we want to hear and espouses the values that we already have. We are particularly vulnerable when someone young and good-looking waxes in passionate and eloquent terms.

Harris wrote his abstinence manifesto when he was 21 years old. Those of us who advocated for abstinence thought that young people would listen more to one of their own, and many bought into his teachings as proof positive for what they already believed. Unfortunately, people forgot how young and inexperienced a 21-year old can be.

Honestly, would you advise anyone you know to take authoritative long-term life advice from the 21-year old you?

In a culture that cherishes youth, it is easy to forget the value of long-term experience and wisdom. Perhaps we unfairly placed Josh on a pedestal that he could not handle. I said a lot of things at 21 that seem foolish now, if not downright stupid. I suspect that many grasped at this book as an answer from someone who lacked the life experience to even understand the questions.

Finally, in our effort to “win” the culture wars against sexual promiscuity, many Christian leaders bought into the concept that the Bible and the church can create a fool-proof formula for sexual purity and marriage success. This fit all the narratives that we hoped were true, and we taught our teens that following the formula would ensure God’s blessings on their future lives.

Let me tell you this:  It didn’t.

This does not mean that abstinence before marriage is impossible or that it is not a worthy ideal. But it rarely happens. And even when it does, it does not provide a guarantee for the future.

I do not rejoice at all in the Harris’ realization about their past teaching and preaching. On the contrary, I grieve for them and what they are having to endure as their private struggle is resulting in public rebuke—some of which is grossly judgmental, and some of which may be justified according to some critics and bloggers.

At the same time, I am glad that they are publicly stating the futility of the Sexual Prosperity Gospel. This may help us recognize that there is no set formula for success in following Jesus Christ through the journey of this very imperfect life.

The problem is that this “gospel” we created fails to factor in the vitality of grace in the face of a life that is always going to be far from perfect.

My wife Tracy and I idealized abstinence as the best path for our relationship as we moved towards marriage. We believed that this was the direction that God wanted us to follow. We did not stick with this ideal, and we suffered some intense struggles because of that.

And yet, we have 29 wonderful years of marriage under our belt. I am more in love with her than I was even at the ripe old age of 18. (I will resist the current evangelical urge to refer to her as my “smokin’ hot wife” in a public forum).

We did not reach this milestone because we dotted every “i” and crossed every “t” in the Christian playbook. We did it through perseverance and faith and the ultimate grace of God to lead us to where we are. It has not been easy, and plenty of peaks and valleys accompanied our journey.

Our guilt over our failures, along with a large dose of regret, made the early years of our marriage extremely difficult. At times, we questioned whether or not God even wanted us after the mistakes that we made. We did not follow the “Biblical” formula for marriage and family, as prescribed by the purity culture in which we were raised.

Instead, we were blessed to discover the far more powerful and valuable presence of grace that Jesus Christ brings. Faith is not about getting what some Sunday School or youth group lesson promises you as long as you are good boys and girls. It is about finding out how we are blessed to serve God and humanity through the forgiveness, love, and grace that faith in Christ brings.

If only us pastor and youth minister types would allow people to find that faith, instead of peddling the latest “answer” to the issues of life.

It is my hope that we embodied that as the highest ideal of scripture rather than pressing young people to follow the purity “checklist” as a path to love and success (whatever that is) in life and relationships.

If a movement in the church promises reward for right behavior, then it is not a movement of faith. It is legalism. It is works righteousness. IF you do this, THEN God will love you and give you what you want. Faith movements are always more complicated and malleable without any guarantee of reward—because such faith never has an endpoint. It is an ongoing journey of twists and turns that cannot be predicted or clearly defined by any human being, certainly not a 21-year old.

My hope for Josh and Shannon is the discovery of a faith far more empowering than the formulas that they advocated in their early lives. They have clearly discovered the falsehood of the Sexual Prosperity Gospel and the purity movement.

They are already enduring a sea of judgment and painful rebuke for this discovery. Hopefully, they can now discover the comfort and grace that the true Gospel of Jesus Christ brings in the face of such hypocrisy.

Their faith journey does not have to be ultimately defined by the purity culture or its advocates. And neither does yours.

Next week’s post will talk about my own complicity in purity culture, and how my own mistakes—and fear that others might repeat them—pushed me in this direction. I recommend a look at this article by David French in National Review as a good preview.

The Selective Defense of “Cast the First Stone”

Views here are mine, and mine alone. They do not represent any views, official or otherwise, of my institution, its affiliates, partners, departments, donors or alumni. If you don’t like what is said, contact me, not anyone else!

I have watched “19 Kids and Counting” exactly one time. And then, it was still “18 Kids and Counting.” I never in my life thought that I would stop a blog about the finale of Mad Men to write about the Duggar family.

I cannot speak intelligently about them, outside of what I have read/seen/heard. But it does not take much information to be disturbed by the recent events related to Josh Duggar.

Josh stepped down from his position at the Family Research Council due to a confession that he sexually abused young girls during his teenage years. This prompted a wide-spread reaction, with some racing to their laptops to point out the Duggars’ indiscretions.

Then, out came the evangelical bloggers and politicians to offer a defense. And a certain segment of evangelical Christianity proved once again that it will defend its superstars at all costs and cover the trail of damages they leave behind.

First, several rushed to point out that Duggar’s offense was no worse than Lena Dunham’s confession. There is some significant debate on what Dunham’s words and actions actually mean, but there is a much greater issue at hand. Lena Dunham does not hold herself up as a paragon of ultra-conservative Christian virtue and values. Josh Duggar and his family do. Attention-getting, shock-seeking Dunham and the professed values of the Duggars and the Family Research Council are neither comparable nor compatible. It should come as no surprise that reactions to them are distinct.

Equally ridiculous is the notion from one commentator that teenage sexual activity is comparable to criminal sexual conduct or molestation. Again, this is an apple-to-oranges comparison that has nothing to do with Duggar or his family’s management of the allegations. Worse yet, this naively absurd notion gives credence to accusations that Christians just don’t “get it” when it comes to cases of sexual misconduct and abuse.

Then, these bloggers tried to use the Gold Standard of Christian Defenses:  The media is out to get these good people because of their faith.

Sorry, not interested. The family has used the media to its advantage for years to promote itself and its values, and benefitted by earning millions of dollars on their television show. You can’t revel in the attention one minute, then whine and cry about it when it goes against you. In fairness, the Duggars are not doing the whining—Matt Walsh is.

Finally, the bloggers went to the old “Let he who is without sin cast the first stone” mantra for their primary line of defense. Certainly this is a valid passage here, and in many other situations. Christians use it all the time—when it’s convenient for them.

It would be comical, were it not so sad, that we pull that verse out of a holster to fire back in defense of one of “our kind.” But when it’s one of “those people,” we keep it buttoned up, maybe even pretending the verse doesn’t exist. And it’s very conveniently ignored, along with many other verses, if we have a chance to derail our enemies.

Walsh proves to be a master at this in his blog on the Duggars. He comes hard with the Cast the First Stone Defense, all while he is loading up his slingshot. Therein lies the problem.

We cannot selectively apply John 8:7 to Josh Duggar if we are not going to follow through with such grace towards others. We cannot scream for equity in judgment against one who is being stoned by hurling rocks at another whom we deem more worthy of blame. Changing the target does not make a stoning any more Christ-like.

If we are going to draw on this one verse, we also have to look at the entirety of the passage, John 8:2-11. We see that Jesus does not attack anyone or light into a fiery sermon about the evils of any of the parties involved. Nor does He berate a woman who has clearly broken a commandment, one that He upholds in several instances. He simply asks some questions that cause everyone to look deep inside their own heart and determine how they need to be better. We could all stand a good dose of this medicine.

Let us also recognize that Jesus did not offer grace and forgiveness because this woman is appropriately remorseful. While we can infer that she is, it is not clearly stated. Jesus calls on us to love and forgive even those who do not ask in what we deem to be the “right way,” including those counted as our enemies (Matthew 5:43-48).

This is not to excuse the actions of Josh Duggar and the Duggar family for the myriad of problematic ways that they handled this situation. If the timeline is accurate, then I would estimate that they badly mishandled this, and glossing over that as Matt Walsh does, along with others, is disingenuous.

(In fact, changing that might have rendered this entire issue moot. I hope that we can all draw lessons on how to approach abuse situations in the future, based on these mistakes).

It also does not mean that we brush aside the issues that contributed to cause this uproar:  Handling abuse “in house” by churches and families, shunning psychology and therapy, defending evangelical heros at all costs, and focusing on the accused more than on victims. (Elizabeth Esther offers a much more candid treatment of these issues here).

These things must change if we are truly going to follow Jesus’ teachings in John 8. He is teaching us to look honestly at ourselves, examine our own sins, and seek ways to go and sin no more. This starts when stop seeking out other targets for our rocks and look intently to the Christ who cleanses our own hearts.

I actually agree wholeheartedly with some of Walsh’s points on this issue. We do need the unimaginable grace of Jesus Christ, all of us. We are all sinners, far from perfect, and in need of the power of the Cross to overcome even our most hidden sins.

But we do that by dealing directly with our own sins, rather than attempting to justify ourselves by shouting “He started it!” and turning the stones on someone else. We start this process by claiming our baggage and carrying our own rocks rather than tossing them at others. And by the grace of Christ, we can leave it all at the foot of the Cross.

I hope that those demanding an end to the stoning of Josh Duggar will remember John 8:7 when referring to others. I hope they will remember it when considering the thousands of other teenage offenders who are in prison for offense that are no more egregious than this. I hope they will recall this when thinking of all those who are poor, sick, in prison or standing outside of the walls of Christianity.

I hope they will offer the same graciousness they request on behalf of the Duggars to those who are not “their kind” of people. May we all do likewise. And may we learn to stop defending the indefensible and instead confront it with the grace of Christ, both in others and certainly in ourselves.

Christmas Scenery and the Theology of Manure

It seems that a lot of things get me unnecessarily irritated at Christmas.

I get irritated with pre-Labor Day Christmas music on the radio. Yes, yes, I know you all love it. So do I—after Thanksgiving! Let me add, however, that Christmas songs by WHAM! or Miley Cyrus irritate me at any time and should be banned for all eternity.

Of course crowds and traffic irritate me.  It’s a strange sensation, during our annual bacchanalia of Peace on Earth and Goodwill towards All, to be filled with the desire to run someone over with my shopping cart.

I’m not even a fan of the Griswold-like light displays, especially when viewing them keeps someone from getting into their driveway.

Seriously, I’m not a Scrooge or a Grinch. I genuinely love Christmas. I just like to keep it in perspective, as in waiting until the day after Thanksgiving. Creating scarcity drives the value up.

But more than all of the headaches and hardships, one question about Christmas has really troubled me the last few years:  Why don’t nativity sets include manure?

The scenes placed on our mantles, coffee tables and church grounds are pristine and sanitized. Mary, a Middle Eastern Jewish girl, is milky-white and–of course–immaculate, even after just giving live birth. On a hay bale. In a barn. Without pain meds. I have to believe that she looked a lot less pristine in the 1st Century version.

Old Joseph (and he usually looks old) stands dutifully in the back, having just delivered his child in spite of the fact that he would have zero knowledge of live birth. Perhaps a midwife is a little too realistic for our tastes.

And then we have perfectly swaddled 8-pound, 6-ounce baby Jesus in His little golden fleece diapers. And, of course, no crying He makes as he rests, perfected and squeaky-clean in an animal feed trough. (And that’s what it was–but we use “manger” because it sounds a lot more holy).

And of course, we must have barnyard animals in our scene. Clean, gazing lovingly, and without a se dropping anywhere to be found near their feed trough. Since it was empty enough to hold a baby, the animals must have been eating that day, right?

Once again, I love traditional Nativity scenes, as they bring back wonderful childhood memories. It was often my job at our house to set up the characters in the hand-made stable my father built. I even like the lawn light-up Jesus Mary and Joseph sets that adorned our neighbors’ lawns.

But the older I get, the less comfort these bring. I simply have to wonder if these depictions are anywhere close to the real scene of the Holy Family. Does it not make sense that if Jesus was born in a stable and placed in an animal feed trough, there was some manure close by?

Deb-Richardson Moore, pastor of Triune Mercy Center in Greenville, SC, reminded me last Sunday of a story I forgot years ago, from a book called The Best Christmas Pageant Ever by Barbara Robinson. In this version of the original Gospels, a group of neighborhood street children named the Herdmans invade the local church Christmas play.

These un-kept children, whose single mother works two jobs, bully other kids out of the lead parts and take over, with the big sister Imogene Herdman playing the role of Mary. They steal all the refreshments, smoke cigars in the restrooms before rehearsal, and decide that they need to rewrite the story.

The Herdmans had never heard the stories of Luke and Matthew that we take for granted. When they discover the manure of the world into which Jesus, King of Kings and Lord of Lords, is born, they find the story unacceptable. Their revised version of the Nativity includes beating the imaginary innkeeper into giving Mary a room, telling the filthy shepherds to get away, and using the gold from the Wise Men to pay off someone to kill Herod.

You see, they recognize that the Gospel is one where Jesus enters the world surrounded by manure. They are offended and scandalized!

Perhaps our Christmas pageant needs to be interrupted with the offensive news of the Gospel that our God was born next to a pile of potential fertilizer. We created the sanitized, G-rated, cozy version. Jesus offends our reality by coming into the world surrounded by manure.

He did not come to give us a comfortable, pristine, white version of Christmas, one untouched by the reality of the manure of real life. He came to empower us to begin cleaning up the mess, to work for His Kingdom Come.

It’s kind of like our homes. We often ignore the mess in the house until we recognize that someone is coming who might see it. We would never accept an infant coming to our house and sleeping next to a pile of excrement. We would immediately begin to clean up the mess and create a better place for a baby to reside on its first night in our presence.

The Christ child comes as our guest, and we should be so mortified by the mess surrounding him that we are compelled to join in helping Him to clean it up. We cannot truly see Jesus unless our hearts are moved to shovel away the injustice, poverty, neglect and struggle of our global neighborhood—one pile at a time.

The offensive nature of the God-child, born in filth that would normally require a DSS investigation, is that it will not allow us to ignore suffering and pain, even when we don’t understand it. We are called by this baby to change the story to one of peace, justice and mercy. In other words, we are to work for the Kingdom of God here on earth, in the middle of the mess into which God was also born.

I am reminded that, at the end of the book, the Herdmans are moved to tears when they realize that this Jesus is indeed born for them, in all of their wild, mean and broken ways. The rest of the church is then reminded that Christmas pageants are about the birth of hope into a hopelessly filthy world.

Maybe that is the value of our picture-perfect Nativity scenes. Maybe they can remind us that the beauty of perfect love comes to us and lives with us even in the middle of our piles of manure. WE are the mess, and God’s ultimate grace is offered to us at Christmas in spite of ourselves. As the Dave Matthews Band tells us in Christmas Song:

So the story goes, so I’m told

The people he knew were Less than golden hearted

Gamblers and robbers

Drinkers and jokers, all soul searchers

Like you and me…

Searching for love love love

Love love love

Love love is all around

The beauty and power of Jesus, with us and for us, is found in following the true love of the Living Christ, in spite of the messes that we see around us. As we look at the scenes of the Holy Family in our homes and churches this year, may we see that these perfect images exist because the ultimate grace of Christ has overcome the dirt and filth that surrounds us. He does so with a compassion and love that we cannot help but share–and if we’re not sharing it, then we have failed to truly understand the grace of the manger. (Or feed trough, if you will).

Merry Christmas to you all. And may your vision of the stable remind you that the beauty of the season is found Jesus the Christ, loving us so much that he came into a world full of manure—and empowering us to love others as He loved us.

(In addition to Dave Matthews, I highly recommend you give a listen to The Rebel Jesus by Jackson Browne).